Creating the conditions for a successful FE system

This week saw the launch of The FE and Skills System, a study by The Policy Consortium.

Subtitled ‘The consequences of policy decisions – lessons for policymakers and stakeholders’, this thorough survey reaches deep into the heart of FE; drawing on feedback from over 500 respondents – experienced, thoughtful and committed professionals –  around half of whom are front line staff.

The report has some clear messages for all the key agencies in post-16 education. Rather than simply acting as a transmission belt for our concerns and grievances, the study identifies 8 key themes and 23 specific root-cause issues and goes on to make constructive recommendations, all of which deserve serious consideration by our key national stakeholders.

The context for FE policy was well summarized in a report of the Commons Public Accounts Select Committee in 2015:

The departments and funding agencies sometimes make decisions without properly understanding the impact on learners, nor the impact on colleges’ ability to compete with other education providers. Colleges face a number of substantial external challenges, some of which are exacerbated by the actions of the departments and their funding agencies.

By listening to the people most affected by these challenges and most committed to the success of the sector, the Policy Consortium study is able to provide first-hand accounts of the impacts of incoherent policy. In summary, it seems that if we want to create the conditions for systemic success we need a clearer vision for the sector, more joined-up policy, performance measures which better reflect our aims, less policy volatility and more secure funding.

By focusing on ‘asks’ of other agencies, the report prompts those of us working within the sector to ask ourselves what we could do differently to help create the kind of system which can genuinely achieve our aim of a successful learning society which serves all its citizens. In his excellent presentation at the launch, Tony Davis shared some thoughts about how the sector could take the agenda forward constructively itself by choosing as its starting point the impact we have on learners. We want our students to become more independent, to be able to research and synthesise, create, adapt and grow, fuelled by curiosity and with an intrinsic understanding of value and quality; in short to be expert learners throughout their lives.

The other major focus of the report is on the policy volatility which has certainly impacted on our work. This understandably leads some to argue that we should ‘take politics of education’ or ‘leave policy to the experts’. However, rather than being a consequence of too much political interest, I think this policy turbulence is a sign of the lack of consensus, clarity and confidence from politicians about what they think society wants from its FE system.

Our representative bodies, such as the AoC, are increasingly good at describing the importance of our work and this could translate into the kind of national consensus which exists around the idea of a National Health Service free for all at the point of use. The NHS is not above politics or free of debate about means – but there is a high degree of agreement about its aims and value. Politics is how we bring about change in a democratic society and it works best when the agenda is clear and there is popular understanding and support. If anything, FE would benefit from more politics; a higher public profile and better informed public debate.

The sector itself can build on the support it already has and work in partnership with others to:

  • Build a strong consensus about the purpose and importance of FE in our society.
  • Value and develop the professional expertise of college staff.
  • Make the social case as well as the economic case for our work.
  • Offer our students coherent curricula, not just qualifications.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of collaboration rather than markets to meet the educational needs of our communities.

We should thank Tony Davis and his colleagues for this significant contribution to the discussion and each of us can do our bit in helping to create the conditions for an even more successful further education system.

See also:

A pdf version of the report can be found here and there is also a flipbook version.

Let’s tackle the causes, not the symptoms Tony Davis in the Times Education Supplement this week.

Sixth Form hopes for 2018 (January 2018)

Life in the sixth form funding canyon (October 2017)

Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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